A:Is there a more abused word in the travel writer’s lexicon than “escape”? But it really does describe a Belizean vacation.
The Central American country has all the makings for a timeout from reality, including multiple ecosystems to explore (swampy planes, rugged coastline, jungle-covered mountain ranges), and a demographic stew you don’t encounter every day (assuming your neighbors aren’t Mestizo, Mayan, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian, and Mennonite).
When I visited last year, I skipped the popular Key Caulker island/resort town off the northern coast, opting instead for the country’s scruffier, untamed southern half.
Nothing against the north—it owns an easy tropical vibe and two of Belize’s most iconic attractions: Hol Chan Marine Reserve and a 400-foot saltwater sinkhole appropriately named the Great Blue Hole.
But I had something more escape-y in mind, which is how I ended up in a tiny, decidedly non-touristy fishing village on the Caribbean Sea in Belize’s southernmost Toledo district.
The town in question, Punta Gorda, consists of shanty-like homes, a couple of restaurants serving conch fritters, a Rastafarian church, and, improbably, a tofu factory—all of which sit at the base of a hilly swath of rainforest.
Nestled among one of these hills is Belcampo Belize, where I spent a week in an upscale jungle cabin exploring the surrounding 15,000-acre rainforest preserve, eating amazing food, and kayaking the Rio Grande, which I nicknamed Lil’ Amazon for its aesthetic similarities to the South American river.
But Belcampo is no ordinary ecolodge. Its CEO is Anya Fernald, a food activist and entrepreneur best known for organizing super-chef Alice Waters’ Slow Food Nation event in 2008, and for serving as a guest-judging on Iron Chef America.
When Fernald took over Belcampo a few years ago, she immediately set it apart from other environmentally friendly resorts by adding an organic farm to the property, which supplies Belcampo’s world-class restaurant and bar with the majority of its meat and produce.
She also began flying in some of the globe’s top culinarians to teach classes. When I was there, James Freeman, owner of the renowned Blue Bottle coffee shops in San Francisco, Oakland and NYC, schooled me on all things java (he also pointed out that “java” is not an accurate synonym for coffee because it’s technically an Indonesian bean, but oh well).
Eventually, Fernald hopes to open a small-batch rum distillery, a cacao farm that will sell to craft chocolate-makers, and a biomass power facility to provide green power to the entire region.
Belcampo proves that business and ethics can coexist (who knew?), that agri-tourism might be the next big thing in travel, and that Belize is full of surprises for the amateur escapist.